Washington state must regulate police drone use now

By Jan Bultmann and Lee Colleton

This week Seattle Privacy packed up in an electric vehicle (ask us about range anxiety) and headed south to ACLU Drone Lobby Day in Olympia, where we joined forces with a group of 30 or so other constituents for a refresher on the legislation we were there to support and tips on how to talk to lawmakers.

(The tips were good. I once worked as an aide in a council office, and I can tell you that sometimes it is absolutely impossible to figure out what in the hell your constituent is telling you to do. Preparing a brief, simple message, like, “We’re asking you to support Senate Bill 6172, which regulates government use of drones,” is a great idea.

Staying focused is also a good tip. It’s easy to burble on madly when you suddenly have access to a person who might actually be able to effect the change you care about. It’s never great to start a 10-minute meeting with “Before I was born…,” for example. I always want to explain the context and why context is important, and I would start with the dawn of agriculture if I had my way. Anyway. Being on time and polite, also good.)

On Drone Lobby Day, our message was, “We’re asking you to support Senate Bill 6172, which regulates government use of drones.”

drone on table
The bill would not affect the Seattle Privacy drone (pictured) or other hobbyist drones.

ACLU  gave us a detailed list of talking points. This is something we at Seattle Privacy could really learn from. We need to agree on talking points before we make visits with councilmembers, attend council hearings, or other public meetings. It’s the only way to make sure that every important point gets covered, and one particular point doesn’t get undue emphasis or time.

(In fact, we’re working on our first set of talking points, regarding smart meters, now, in preparation for speaking to the Seattle City Light Review Panel later this month.)

So here are a few highlights from SB 6172.

Court order required

Under SB 6172, state law enforcement agencies would need a court order to use drones to collect information that could be used to identify a person. This is essential. Because of how small and maneuverable drones already are, compared to manned aerial surveillance, and the relentless trend toward miniaturization in tech, it’s easy to see that drone surveillance introduces a host of new vantage points from which to view people. And if they don’t already have facial recognition software, they certainly will soon enough. An early version of the bill specified that they could not have weapons, but, tragically, I believe that language has been struck.

With drones emerging as a cornerstone of our military strategy, research is proceeding apace. We can bet that drones will become more powerful, more versatile and less expensive. Advances in artificial intelligence will enhance their ability to carry out increasingly invasive surveillance. We can expect drones that will carry high-power zoom lenses, employ thermal imaging and use radar to penetrate the walls of homes and businesses. With facial recognition software, they will be able to recognize and track individuals. And the Air Force is testing a system called “Gorgon Stare,” which uses multiple cameras to look at a whole city. – ACLU-WA

To add to what the ACLU asked us to focus on for their Drone Lobby Day, I want to say here that the combination of personally identifying data and drones carrying weapons powered the United States’s extrajudicial assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki’s innocent 16-year-old son, a U.S. citizen, and uncounted others, in Yemen. I don’t really expect the Washington State Patrol to start launching drone attacks against Washington residents without benefit of trial or due process, but I want to make it explicit that we don’t do that here. And we never should have done it, or still be doing it now, anywhere, to anyone, regardless of their country of citizenship.

Approval from local governing bodies BEFORE purchase

SB 6172 would require agencies to get approval from the state Legislature or local governments, such as city councils, before purchasing drones. This touches on an issue we at Seattle Privacy keep running into, which is how lavish amounts of money are available to state and local law enforcement agencies in the form of grants from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Again, to add to what ACLU has to say on this subject, I want to point out that these pernicious DHS grants appear to be designed to create a new domestic surveillance agency through their network of state & local fusion centers, and they also have a way of slipping military style equipment by local oversight bodies.

In Seattle, for example, DHS funding paid for Seattle Police Department drones and surveillance cameras. When members of the public first started asking about the cameras popping up all along a waterfront park, not even City Council knew where they had come from. Early news reports incorrectly claimed they were owned by Port of Seattle. But no, they belonged to SPD. SPD drones were also sprung on council as a fait accompli. After an  eloquent argument from the ACLU, and public outcry, the drones, at least, were boxed. The cameras still sit on their posts, supposedly nonoperational, but with their power lights glowing.

(As it happens, Seattle City Council is poised to renew approval for SPD to receive DHS grants this month. More about that here, under action number 2.)

Not a prohibition

In our training, Shankar Narayan, legislative director for the ACLU of Washington, stressed that we should stress that this legislation was not trying to prohibit the use of the technology.

First of all, that would be a very impolitic move in a state that hosts so much aerospace industry. In fact, a similar bill almost made it to the floor of the House last year but stalled in the Rules Committee, strangely, after Boeing representatives spoke up for a new and growing industry of which they are very much a part. They didn’t want regulation too soon, they said.

But that was last year, before the Summer of Snowden. The conversation has changed a bit, thankfully. While drones still could be extremely beneficial on the public’s behalf, for example, for search and rescue operations, wildfire monitoring, or other non-unconstitutional-bulk-warrantless-domestic-surveillance type uses, every legislator or staff person I spoke with was also very alive to privacy concerns.

Chats with reps

It’s a strange experience to speak to legislators as part of an official constituent visit. It can feel a bit anticlimactic, after learning and preparing, to talk to someone who is calm, friendly, attentive, and respectful, but gives you absolutely no idea what he or she thinks about the issue. Probably more experienced lobbyists can push past that, and if that’s the case, I hope to get to that point.

Even though it’s not always clear that we have made a difference at all when we speak to our elected representatives, I believe it is very important that we do it. Partly, that’s because as American citizens, we have an added layer of agency beyond what people, say, in Yemen, or Pakistan, have, when it comes to telling the US government how to behave. And partly, as we told the folks we talked to in Olympia, these technologies, along with secret laws and secret courts, threaten our ability to govern ourselves freely. We need to work together and exercise our rights while we still can.

This post is in honor of Karim Khan, an anti-drone activist and journalist has gone missing in Pakistan just days before he was due to travel to Europe to speak with Parliament members about the impact of the U.S. drone wars. Karim Khan’s brother and son were both killed in a drone strike in 2009.

Update: Karim Khan has been released, after having been kidnapped by 15-20 armed men, beaten, interrogated, and tortured.

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